“A designer must not only see the way a player engages with the system, but also how he leaves it and — perhaps even more importantly — what brings him back again. “ Cunningham & Zichermann
Gamification has been around for a while. People like to treat it as a golden ticket to user engagement. There are a lot of great resources to figure out in what ways you can add gamification to your current app’s system. It’s used as a tool to motivate and keep the user engaged in applications.
One of the most used gamification patterns is rewards. They seem like a no-brainer. People love using reward systems because they’re easy to implement and tend to work with a variety of users.
When implementing they don’t necessarily need to add other logic to the application. Just reward the user for doing what they are already supposed to do. It’s easy to want to jump on the bandwagon.
But there’s also a lot of pitfalls a designer, or even just someone looking to elevate their app experiences needs to be aware of.
Games are still the best resource to see where gamification patterns go wrong. But there are a lot of gamified apps that can be a better guide to what works and what doesn’t.
Here, some of the pitfalls of the most commonly used gamification pattern.
Not adding real value
A lot of apps want to give their user a sense of achievement early on. This could take any form by giving away badges anytime the user does something of significance, down to rewarding them for simply opening the app that day.
In any case, rewards need to give their user some kind of value. It’s easy to reward user behavior that motivates app use, but empty gestures are easily detectable.
Lyft newbies, for example, get a variety of badges that seem to have no good reason other than getting them to ride as much as possible. Not only do the rewards make little sense (e.g. getting a badge for taking a lift on a Friday), they are also not exactly motivating.
Getting way too many rewards for no apparent reason can easily reduce their value as well.
But there’s a lot of ways to use badges in helpful ways.
DuoLingo has a ton of badges for achievements, but it’s so the assignments get more manageable and the user stays motivated along the way.
For untappd, the badges are not only motivating but also humorful. Their community also plays a huge role in what badges get added in the future. It’s not just something the app sees fit, it’s something their users actually want.
The punishment doesn’t fit the crime
“The way to love anything is to realize it might be lost “ Gilbert Chesterton
Punishment isn’t often used in the gamification of apps because it is generally considered demotivating. But though not recommended, some apps do use punishment (or in other words: negative reinforcement) as a way to motivate the user. It can have a great return when used correctly but is considered a slippery slope.
Still, there is an aspect to it that often gets forgotten. The more common kind of punishment is indirect. Indirect punishment happens when a user is not able to fulfill their purpose and therefore loses something that is of value to them.
Streaks are a commonly known motivator in apps. But there often are no ways to avoid failure in case of not being able to complete the task of the day.
With most fitness apps there often is no option to add a “sick” day or week.
Headspace has a run streak feature to help build a meditation practice. The problem is anytime a user doesn’t use the app for a day, their streak reverts back to 0.
No matter if the user made 30 or 800 days in a row.
The run streak targets start out pretty easy with 1, 3, and 10 days but the gap between the next doubles almost every step, which makes the path between each pretty steep.
Rewards and punishments are often experienced as feelings, and can be more rewarding—or painful—than the thing a user is actually getting. In other words, you don’t care as much about the badge you get after a 30-day streak than the achievement of not having given up the habit.
Especially in the digital world, getting used to and caring for achievements can make it especially painful to lose them, especially in light of the fact that pain from loss is often felt much more than pleasure from gain.
Oftentimes some rewards simply take too long to be achieved. It gives a user the illusion of value, without actually wanting to give that value to them.
It’s easy to tell when an app’s main reason to have rewards is to lure users in. If the app can’t uphold the initial intrigue, a user might feel betrayed after their purchase.
Take Zynn: after the video app introduced their own reward system, “Zynncheers” points, they received backlash for not giving their users the benefits (cash) they used to get them to download the app in the first place.
There needs to be a steady flow of what the user can achieve and what helps them in the long haul.
Not every application needs a reward system. The most important part of the app’s experience should be the product itself and its practicality to the user.
Trying to lure in users to use something that will not help them in any way, will not provide any kind of loyalty, or keep the user from looking for solutions elsewhere.
Good design is for the right user, not to persuade any user possible.
Reward systems can have a great impact on your product if it helps the user in a meaningful way.
The most common pitfall is to not have any meaning behind gamification patterns.
It’s important to give the user just enough so that they’ll want to stay, but to do it with sensible reasoning in mind. Empty gestures are easy to detect, especially when the initial rush wears off.
Keeping the balance is key.